Urinary incontinence 


Urinary incontinence

Stress, childbirth and age can all cause incontinence. Get expert advice on treatments, including pelvic floor exercises, medication and surgery.

Media last reviewed: 18/03/2013

Next review due: 18/03/2015

How we pass urine

Urine passes from the kidneys through tubes called ureters to the bladder, where it is stored.

The bladder is supported by pelvic floor muscles. Some of this muscle wraps around the urethra – the tube that runs from the bladder to outside the body – to help keep it closed until you need to pass urine.

Once the bladder is full, a signal is sent to the brain that you need to pass urine. When you are ready, the brain tells the pelvic floor muscles to relax and open the urethra. The muscles around the bladder contract and push the urine out.

A problem in any part of this process can result in urinary incontinence.

Urinary incontinence is the unintentional passing of urine. It is a very common problem and is thought to affect millions of people worldwide.

It is not clear exactly how many people are affected, but it is estimated that between three and six million people in the UK have some degree of urinary incontinence.

Urinary incontinence affects about twice as many women as men and becomes more common with age.

What are the symptoms of urinary incontinence?

The symptoms of urinary incontinence depend on the type of condition you have.

There are several types of urinary incontinence, but the most common are:

  • stress incontinence – when the pelvic floor muscles are too weak to prevent urination, causing urine to leak when your bladder is under pressure, for example when you cough or laugh 
  • urge incontinence – when urine leaks as you feel an intense urge to pass urine, or soon afterwards

These two types of urinary incontinence are thought to be responsible for over 9 out of 10 cases. It is also possible to have a mixture of both stress and urge urinary incontinence.

Read more about the symptoms of urinary incontinence.

What causes urinary incontinence?

The causes of urinary incontinence depend on the type of condition.

Stress incontinence is usually the result of the weakening or damaging of the muscles that are used to prevent urination, such as the pelvic floor muscles and the urethral sphincter.

Urge incontinence is usually the result of overactivity of the detrusor muscles, which control the bladder.

Certain things can increase the chances of urinary incontinence developing, including:

  • pregnancy and vaginal birth
  • obesity
  • family history of incontinence
  • increasing age

Read more about the causes of urinary incontinence.

How is it diagnosed?

Urinary incontinence can usually be diagnosed after a consultation with your GP, who will ask about your symptoms and may carry out a pelvic examination.

Your GP may suggest you keep a diary in which you note how much fluid you drink and how often you have to urinate.

If your GP thinks a urinary infection might be the underlying cause, they will test a sample of your urine.

Read more about diagnosing urinary incontinence.

How is urinary incontinence treated?

Urinary incontinence can be an uncomfortable and upsetting problem. Though it is more common as you get older, many people wrongly believe that it is an inevitable part of ageing.

There are several forms of effective treatment, including:

  • lifestyle changes, such as losing weight
  • pelvic floor muscle training (exercising your pelvic floor muscles by squeezing them) 
  • bladder training, so you can wait longer between needing to urinate and passing urine

If these measures are not effective, medication may be used to treat stress and urge incontinence. 

You may also benefit from the use of incontinence products, such as absorbent pads and hand-held urinals (urine collection bottles).

Read more about non-surgical treatments for urinary incontinence.

If these treatments are not successful, a number of different surgical techniques can be considered.

Surgical treatments for stress incontinence, such as tape or sling procedures, are used to reduce pressure on the bladder, or strengthen the muscles that control urination.

Operations to treat urge incontinence can include the enlargement of the bladder or the implanting of a device that stimulates the nerve that controls the detrusor muscles.

Read more about surgical treatments for urinary incontinence.

Preventing urinary incontinence

It is not always possible to prevent urinary incontinence, but there are some steps you can take to reduce the chance of the condition developing, such as:

  • controlling your weight
  • reducing or stopping your alcohol consumption
  • keeping fit

Read more about preventing urinary incontinence.

Page last reviewed: 21/09/2012

Next review due: 21/09/2014


How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 259 ratings

All ratings

Add your rating


The taboo of incontinence

Find out about the different types of incontinence and why they occur

Online clinic on bladder, bowel and IBS

Get answers from a panel of experts about all sorts of bladder, bowel and IBS issues